Disasters, relief and the "third gender" in Nepal

by Katie Nguyen | Katie_Nguyen1 | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 1 May 2013 09:55 GMT

People salvage their belongings in a improvised boat from flood waters in east Nepal August 24, 2008. REUTERS/Nepal Army 11 Brigade/Handout

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Nepal has recently started to implement a policy to issue "third gender" citizenship certificates to people who did not wish to be identified as male or female

When cyclones, tsunamis, earthquakes and other disasters strike, women and children, the elderly and disabled are usually reported to be those most affected and most vulnerable.

The particular problems that one group of individuals face at such times seem to be greatly under-reported.

Did you know, for example, that gay men in Haiti were denied food aid after the 2010 earthquake because ration schemes were aimed at women, and no women were registered in their households? Or that transgender people in Pakistan were denied entry to IDP camps after the floods because their ID papers did not match their appearance?

The discrimination doesn't end there.

Researchers say there's evidence that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people are often given lower priority than others during rescue efforts. Their families are excluded from distributions of food and other basic supplies. They face difficulties visiting injured partners and claiming the bodies of loved ones.

A recent paper by the Humanitarian Practice Network suggests these problems are often overlooked by development staff and emergency relief workers because they "cause unease" and there are few guidelines on how to deal with the issue.

For the response to improve, what's required is a joint effort by the local authorities and aid groups to recognise LGBTI people and meet their needs along with those of others.

Disaster-prone Nepal - which benefits from a vibrant LGBTI rights movement - provides a compelling example of what legal recognition can do for LGBTI people in emergencies, according to a report in the latest issue of Forced Migration Review (FMR).

Home to Mount Everest and the birthplace of the Buddha, Nepal emerged from a decade of conflict in 2006, after which it began to acknowledge the rights of minority communities.

One such community are the metis - males who identify themselves as female. Metis have been characterised as gay men or transgender women, and have in the past suffered widespread violence at the hands of the state.

In 2008, many metis were displaced by flooding in Nepal's Sunsari and Saptari districts. According to FMR's report "Gender identity and disaster response in Nepal", some spoke of discrimination in the relief process - being given only part of the food aid they were entitled to - while others who were relocated far from their homes said they were frightened of the reaction of their new neighbours.

One of the biggest problems for LGBTI people in humanitarian emergencies is the discrepancy between how they may appear and their documentation, the report said.

ID documents are crucial for everything from registering in relief camps to seeking medical attention and enrolling in school. Not conforming to type can lead to greater scrutiny and humiliation, abuse or neglect.

In 2007, progress was made when Nepal's Supreme Court ruled that the government should issue "third gender" citizenship certificates for people who did not wish to be identified as male or female.

The policy was recently implemented - too late to make a difference to Sunsari flood survivors but nevertheless an important step.

"As one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world, and having a thriving and successful LGBTI rights movement, Nepal's work on this front is an example of what can be done to protect people," Kyle Knight, one of the authors of the report, told me.


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